'I told you so': MacArthur called it 70 years ago
As a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Douglas MacArthur served as an aide-de-camp to his father, General Arthur MacArthur, and visited Japan, China, Burma, India, Ceylon, Singapore, Java, and other Asian lands. In Reminiscences, his memoirs, MacArthur recalled: "We were nine months in travel, traversing countless miles of lands so rich in color, so fabled in legend, so vital to history that the experience was without doubt the most important factor of preparation in my entire life."
MacArthur claimed to have foreseen his "destiny" in the "lands of the western Pacific and Indian Ocean." He wrote that "the future and, indeed, the very existence of America, were irrevocably entwined with Asia and its island outposts." It was a theme that he would return to again and again throughout his long, distinguished career. MacArthur was a prophet of the Asian Century.
William Manchester, whose biography of MacArthur, titled American Caesar, is one of the great books of the 20th century, wrote that MacArthur hated the continent of Europe. But it is more accurate to say that MacArthur hated the Eurocentric worldview of America's ruling class in the mid-20th century. During the war, as he led U.S. forces in the southwest Pacific, MacArthur felt slighted by Washington's "Europe-first" war strategy. When President Roosevelt ordered him to leave the Philippines for Australia, MacArthur grudgingly followed orders based on a promise that there were forces waiting for him there to retake his beloved Philippines. But he soon discovered that no such forces existed. Washington had lied to him again.
As the tide turned in the Pacific, MacArthur again battled with Washington (and the Navy brass) to allow him to retake the Philippines by shrewdly appealing to FDR's political instincts. It worked. But his distrust of Washington and its Eurocentric focus persisted. It would again manifest itself in the Korean War, which he believed was a crucial battle in the struggle between the West and international communism, but which Washington decided was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."
After MacArthur was relieved of command in Korea, he addressed a joint session of Congress and emphasized the geopolitical importance of America's position in Asia and the western Pacific. He noted that Asia contained more than half of the Earth's people and natural resources. There was an ongoing "shift in the world's economic frontiers" from Europe to Asia, and the United States needed to reorient its foreign policy accordingly. World War II, he said, shifted America's frontier to the entire Pacific Ocean, and the U.S. controlled the western Pacific "by a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas." As long as America holds that island chain, it "can dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific." China under communist control, he warned, would one day become the dominant power in Asia, and its leaders possessed the "same lust for the expansion of power which has animated every would-be conqueror since the beginning of time." That day has arrived.
In a subsequent speech to the Mississippi Legislature in March 1952, MacArthur said freedom's first line of defense was not in Europe, but in Asia. The loss of China was a huge setback for America and the West, and he called for shifting resources from Europe to Asia to meet the growing threat because, as he said in his address to Congress, Asia is the "gateway to Europe," and "the broad influence" of Asia "cannot fail to impact" Europe. (China recognizes this today with its Belt and Road Initiative).
In his memoirs, MacArthur called the Truman administration's decision to withhold aid from the Nationalists in China during the Chinese Civil War "one of the greatest mistakes ever made in our history." The communist victory there, he warned, will have consequences that "will be felt for centuries, and its ultimate disastrous effects on the fortunes of the free world are still to be unfolded."
MacArthur's prescience can be seen in the events of the past decade as China's geopolitical challenge to America's position in what is now commonly referred to as the Indo-Pacific region has grown. Taiwan is the central bastion of the island arc that MacArthur saw as our strategic frontier in the western Pacific. China claims Taiwan as its territory and has adopted its own version of the Monroe Doctrine for the South China Sea and beyond. As noted above, China views its Belt and Road Initiative as a strategic/economic gateway to Europe and Africa. And China's strategic partnership with Russia (which has "no limits" according to Chinese spokesmen) threatens to upset the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia.
War clouds gather in the western Pacific. Taiwan's independence remains precarious. Our geopolitical position in the Indo-Pacific and our pre-eminent position in the global order hang in the balance. More than 70 years ago, Douglas MacArthur foresaw all of this. And yet so many of our historians praise FDR and Truman — whose administrations were riddled with communist sympathizers and whose policy errors set in motion events that led to China's rise and its current geopolitical challenge — and dismiss MacArthur as a dangerous megalomaniac who wanted to start World War III. We should have listened to the farsighted "old soldier."
Image via NARA.